Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Exploring east to Florida

Week 2, December 7-13, 2009

Monday - There hadn't been any rain predicted, but it started in the night and got pretty intense before dawn, but it stopped as the day lit up. It actually got fairly warm, and I got down to a tee shirt before noon, the only time that happened on this trip. I was headed for the Cameron area, one of the best in Louisiana, and took the most southerly paved road along the coast, a "scenic and natural by-way". It passed the Rockefeller WMA, which is huge and mostly inaccessible except by water, and then only during certain seasons. But the large lakes right along the highway were great, and one short side-road yielded all three Merganser species see-able from one spot.

From there I drove to Cameron Prairie NWR and Sabine NWR, drove the tour loop in the former and walked the Marshland trail in the latter, both highly recommended. The fun was cut short by more un-predicted rain that ran into the evening. I took advantage of the forced car time to find Peveto Woods, a small sanctuary that regularly produces a variety of rarities, owned by the Baton Rouge Audubon Society (BRAS). It's the most prominent copse of trees along a coastline that's mostly salt-marsh, and truly a refuge for some lost and exhausted woodland critters. I headed on west to the bridge over the Sabine River hoping for a glimpse of Cave Swallows but they seemed to have been driven away, hopefully temporarily, by the construction of a new high-rise version of the old water level wooden structure with its endless small enclosed spaces. Their fate will depend a lot on how much of the old structure is allowed to remain.

Somehow, I'd crossed the bridge and was in Texas, and it didn't look too hard to loop around back into LA, but it ended up being a black hole of refineries and roads that made little sense to my tired senses, even with the GPS. And it was raining to drain gumption and when I found a truck-stop near Lafayette, I crashed there.

Tuesday - Intense rain in the night, enough to find a couple of pinhole leaks, lots of noise on the thin camper-shell roof, but it drowned and smoothed the truck idling roar of the 18 wheelers. I was up before dawn and drove back into New Orleans, checking out some site in and near the Bonnet Carre spillway. I found some new LA tics even in the rain lulls, but mostly was grooving on the great flocks of Ibises, both Whites and probably mostly Glossies (the transistion zone between Glossy and White-faced is actually not far west), that were in all the shallow rain puddled yards and any other flat areas. It had been a lot of rain.

I got into NOLA about ten, went to Angela's house, hung with her brother and my friend Gates the great musician, took a nap to compensate for the poor sleep the night before. She came home along with her boyfriend Tedd, both on the faculty at ???? He's an artist and together they have made the house a work of art. It has lots of careful but inexpensive detailing filled in with very neat doors and cabinets, interesting ceiling lines, and comfortable porches ideal for the New Orleans evenings. We stayed up late talking and starting a major jigsaw puzzle of Shakespearian characters. Angela had played Hamlet in a production a few years earlier, but I haven't seen the tape of it yet. It had some very good reviews.

Wednesday - I slept fairly well since I'd been promoted from the couch to the guest room, actually her son's who was away at college. Start was a little late, but then headed east back into MS where I checked out a couple more sites, but the real goal was Dauphin Island in Alabama, a famous birding place, but unfortunately wrecked by Katrina which had taken down the majority of the larger trees in the Audubon Sanctuary. I didn't stay there too long as I wanted to get the ferry across Mobile Bay to Ft Morgan. But did manage to find two very good birds, one a Bonaparte's Gull, and an even more surprising Western Kingbird from the parking lot on the south side of the Dauphin Is fort. I had good luck with the ferry timing, and so didn't linger on the western shore. I was the only paying vehicle on the ferry. The crew was the Captain, his mate, and a young woman deckhand who operated all the gates and such, the other car was hers, used to drive up the approach roads to open them on the eastern end.

I had some good luck in Bon Secour NWR, getting farther back into it than I'd been on previous stops, into an area of scrubby small dunes with occasional pools, but surprisingly birdy. And a pleasant mellow unwinding kind of place. I ended up staying at Gulf State Park, $23 and a senior discount, and a Great Horned Owl calling. Ended getting ten new AL tics without any great effort, probably could have found more if I'd been able to access more shoreline, or had known of some freshwater wetland site nearby. I learned later that the CBC there, Gulf Shores, is consistently one of the highest counts in the country, but couldn't wait it out since it's after the first of the year, making it one of the latest in the area.

Thursday - It turned cold in the night with a stiff north wind. I birded around the park, back to Bon Secour, tried some sites around Gulf Shores, and then drifted into Florida. Once I got there it was mostly driving, and I ended up finding a large empty parking lot in a sanctuary zone on the St Joseph Peninsula. There was a State Park I wanted to be in position for in the morning. The stars were crystalline that night.

Friday - But dawn was cloudy and cold, and the park didn't open for another two hours. I tried to access the shore and the bay, but most of the land was private. I did find one Gulf side access, and one Bay-side behind a gas station. The good spot turned out to be a county park along the short east-west road that led back to the mainland. Spent most of two hours in there walking an intricate system of trails, with some higher viewpoints. Found good birds that had piled up when the land ran out going south. In Apalachicola the NERR office was open. Great place and very friendly and helpful folks. They gave me info, posters, booklets, lists and whatnot. Also lots of advice on local spots and current birds-of-interest. Met Alan Knothe, the CBC coordinator who made me yearn to try that one some year, but as it turned out it was too distant to work in with the others I had book-marked.

I drove on up to St Mark's NWR, and ended up sleeping under the fire-tower across the highway from Outses Two, the little roadhouse where I've had several good meals and a couple of floods. I had picked up ten new tics, and was well over 40%, making FL a focus for some near-future efforts.

Saturday - I woke up around 1am, couldn't get back to sleep, and finally decided to try to catch dawn at Wakulla Point beach. Sat in the dark working on the official checklist, catching up the written record. It started raining, and by dawn it was a steady rain and cold wind, but still a few shorebirds emerged out of the gray fog. Headed back to St Mark's HQ after grabbing some food (Subway breakfast units are quite good) and lucked into a tour group that was gonna ride around in an open wagon affair behind a pick-up. I guess quite a few folks had failed to show, it was raining like hell, and I had little trouble cadging an abandoned spot on the ride.

What a ride, possibly one of the most uncomfortable birding experiences of a lifetime. To start with the wagon was open sided, which wasn't true of the pick-up pulling it, at 35 mph, in driving rain that just came through horizontally mixed with the road spray. By the time he stopped and we could mention the need for slow, we and the optics were already seriously wet. I had on a good Gore-tex jacket, but not pants, and managed to cover the eye piece of the scope with a plastic bag. Our route took us back into closed areas of the refuge, and the birding was great. The roof of the wagon was flat, or maybe even slightly concave. At each stop and start and each turn a sheet of water would pour off some random edge of the roof to be driven half the time through the inside by the wind. Sitting was hopeless, standing was treacherous and the birding was great. Bitterns, all kinds of ducks and waders, some shorebirds, a Long-tailed Duck, and after unloading at the Visitor's Center and restoring some dry to person and gear, I drove back down to the beach at the lighthouse, and with some other fanatics was able to find a Neotropic Cormorant on the offshore pilings. Even more tics, but I'd had enough and headed back toward New Orleans.

I stopped at St George Island State Park to check out camping, $26, too much, maybe one night some day at the peak of spring migration. But there were some places before the park gate that were productive. I ended up driving into Tate's Hell, a weird gnarly woodland and State Forest, and ended up sleeping literally on the side of the road. Not much traffic out there.

Sunday - Intermittent rain in the night. And most of the day as well. I was by a great prairie that the bird-finder said was great for winter sparrows, but it would have been another drenching slog and I hadn't the heart for it. Instead I went to the Tall Timbers Research Station which was excellent, it even had an enclosed viewing room over looking a wetland, and I found three tics there as well as another driving through Tallahassee. Then I just drove west for five hours and ended at the boat landing at Grand Bay NERR on the eastern edge of Mississippi. There were supposedly a few Brewer's Blackbirds there, mixed with the gazillion Red-wings, and I'd also been told that Yellow Rail was possible by walking the power-line that ran by the lab building, but it turned out to be a definite high boots or waders situation. The mosquitoes at the landing drove me back to a parking space in front of the lab where I spent the night,


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